Wisconsin Gas Engine Companies

Manufacturers Flocked to the Badger State in the Early Days of the Gas Engine Industry

| May 2005

Over the years, Wisconsin could boast of at least 150 operating engine manufacturers, ranking the Badger State the fifth-largest engine manufacturer nationally.

Wisconsin's engine manufacturers included some of agriculture's biggest names, like J.I. Case and Allis-Chalmers, well-known for tractors, for example, but not necessarily for building engines. Other names included LeRoi and Briggs & Stratton, whose engines were well-known but not generally associated with agriculture. And then there were well-known agricultural companies with reputations for building tractors and engines, like Fairbanks, Morse & Co., Eagle Mfg. Co. and John Lauson Mfg. Co., as well as dozens of companies most people have never heard of.

When Fairbanks, Morse & Co. of Beloit began manufacturing engines in 1893, they had a built-in advantage. Since 1880 they had been selling Eclipse windmills to railroad companies and farmers, and had purchased Eclipse Wind Engine Co. of Beloit in 1890. When F-M hired James A. Charter from the established Charter Gas Engine Co. of Sterling, Ill., railroad companies and farmers, who had already had successful dealings with F-M, flocked to buy Fairbanks-Morse engines. Though early F-M engines were merely renamed Charters (newer ones under Charter's tutelage soon took on a different look, becoming more compact and neater-looking), F-M charged to the lead in building farm engines.

Fairbanks-Morse's large, early horizontal engines used air starters because of the difficulty of turning them over by hand. Instead of a carburetor, they used a metering pump. Over the years, F-M introduced many popular engines, like Type Y verticals and Jack-of-All-Trades engines, staples in the company line from 1895 to 1916. Oil-cooled Jack-of-All-Trades engines were designed expressly for cool weather, and despite the heavy radiator, were still popular. The Type Z engine was introduced in 1915 and was so popular, it put many smaller companies out of business. Fairbanks-Morse engines came in almost every size from 1-1/2 to 44 HP, as well as some larger ones. Some were built specifically for mining concerns, including a gasoline hoist that could be broken into 300-pound-or-less pieces to allow them to be carried into the mountains by mules. The company also made engine/generator outfits like the 11-ton, 54 HP unit. Fairbanks-Morse still survives, and makes engines in Beloit today.

Name them "Wisconsin"

At least three engine companies used "Wisconsin" in their corporate names: Wisconsin Engine Co. of Corliss, Wisconsin Motor Co. of Milwaukee and Wisconsin Machinery & Mfg. Co., also of Milwaukee.

Wisconsin Engine Co. migrated from Chicago in 1908 where it had been Sargent Engineering Co., selling Sargent engines. These were renamed "Wisconsin" engines in Corliss, then renamed "Adams" engines in 1912. The company produced only large engines up to 65 HP for electric generators. In 1912, Edward A. Rumely tried to buy the company, and had already begun advertising Rum-ely-Adams engines when his negotiator died; the deal, and company, fell through.